STONINGTON — A standing-room only crowd of more than 100 residents packed the Stonington Community Center Thursday to watch a sometimes-feisty debate between candidates for first selectman and selectmen.
While incumbent First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. touted his accomplishments during his six years in office, challenger Glee McAnanly frequently disputed his assertions. Haberek, a Democrat, mentioned several times that he had not raised the municipal budget. McAnanly, a Republican, said Haberek wasn’t using all of the data in his calculations, and should have given more credit to the Board of Finance.
“I think those numbers are a little disingenuous,” she said.
Moderator Paul Choiniere of The Day newspaper asked Haberek about the lawsuit against him and the town by resident Tracy Swain, who has claimed Haberek sent her a naked photo of himself from his town-owned Blackberry device and that she suffers migraines from the incident.
Haberek declined to comment on the case, saying the litigation was ongoing. “I want to protect my rights for countersuit,” he said. “I vehemently deny the allegations.”
George Crouse, an incumbent selectman and Haberek’s running mate, noted that “at this point, nothing has been proven.”
Haberek and McAnanly sparred over the reason the town was included in Swain’s lawsuit. McAnanly said the town was named as a defendant because Haberek initially used the town’s labor attorney to respond to Swain’s charges, but Haberek disputed that statement.
Choiniere brought up negative comments about Haberek made by William Brown, McAnanly’s running mate and a former first selectman and selectman. Brown has said the first selectman’s office has lost the respect of the voters he speaks with, and he criticized Haberek for appearing in the Handlebar Café episode of the Bravo television network’s “Bar Rescue” show.
McAnanly was asked to reconcile those remarks with her stated desire to conduct a campaign solely about the issues. She replied that she could speak only for herself, not for Brown.
Haberek replied that going to a bar was no different from going to a yacht club. “I don’t judge people,” he said. “We’re all a community here.” He also accused Brown of taking a campaign donation from a potential large developer.
Another point of contention came when Crouse, describing how he and Haberek were dedicated to the town, said that he and Haberek always worked during emergencies. “Every storm, what do you see? Haberek and Crouse,” he said.
McAnanly countered that Haberek never asked for her help during an emergency. “I have never been called by the first selectman to participate during any storm,” she said.
Haberek and McAnanly also disagreed about Haberek’s record for preserving open space, and for encouraging economic development. When Haberek said he visits with two business owners a month, McAnanly said she didn’t know that, and would have appreciated a monthly report on which businesses he visited and what the owners said.
When asked for her opinion on abortion, gay marriage, and religion, McAnanly, who attends the Groton Bible Chapel, noted that although her religion is part of her, as an elected official her job would be to enforce all laws equally and fairly. She added that those topics shouldn’t be part of a selectman’s debate.
“When it comes to social issues, those aren’t things that should be in a sound bite,” she said to scattered applause.
Haberek responded that he has performed many gay weddings, and added that he didn’t need to ask his wife first when it came to the question of abortion. That was in reference to a published comment McAnanly had made about checking with her husband before responding to an interviewer’s question on abortion. (She explained that her thinking was influenced by her family’s circumstances: she and her husband had adopted two children from Russia.)
Both McAnanly and Brown noted that there are several municipal positions that Haberek needs to fill, including the directors of planning, human services, and public works. “I know that these positions are critical to the operations of the town,” said Brown.
There was some sparring over the state of the town’s Ethics Committee. Haberek said it won’t be assembled until there’s an ethics complaint in front of the town attorney. McAnanly said there should be a committee in place before there’s a problem, and Brown said complaints should not go through the town attorney, because the attorney reports to the first selectman.
“The town attorney is no way to handle an ethics complaint,” said Brown. “What the first selectman wants, the first selectman gets.”
The first selectman candidates were in agreement on some of the topics. When asked what services they would cut to reduce taxes, both said they didn’t want to cut anything. And neither directly answered a question about allowing backyard chickens, responding that the first selectman picks the members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and then lets them do their job.
There were a few light moments in the debate as well. When McAnanly forgot a question, Haberek jokingly compared her to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who famously blanked during a presidential debate in 2012. And when Crouse was asked about backyard hens, he said he was concerned that male chickens weren’t allowed, too. “I think we better start a rooster support group,” he joked.